A 5-10 record in the last 15 games may not seem like a great record, but for a Memphis Tigers program that went 4-32 from 2009-2011, it is a mark indicative of the major progress the team has made since head coach Justin Fuente was hired in December of 2011.
The Tigers have come a long ways from getting blown out every weekend. Their 31-7 win against the Arkansas State Red Wolves showed the progress the team has made since finishing 2011 with a 2-10 record. That season, Memphis was throttled, 47-3, in Jonesboro, but with the talent level rising and the team’s confidence soaring, it dominated the Red Wolves from start to finish.
Though the Tigers are on the rise, they are still in the process of becoming a winning program. One aspect that winning programs have is that they win on a consistent basis against top-level competition.
Arkansas State was a good win, but Saturday, a whole new animal comes to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in the Central Florida Knights.
Under head coach George O’Leary, the Knights have become a solid program, making five bowl appearances since 2005. Memphis won the first meeting between the schools in 1990, but UCF has dominated the series since, taking the last eight games. This season, however, is the first time in a while where the Tigers have a legitimate shot at ending the streak.
It won’t be easy, though, to end the program’s first ever AAC game with the W.
The Knights have one of the most talented backfields in the conference with senior quarterback Blake Bortles and junior running back Storm Johnson. UCF is in the top 50 nationally in both offense (No. 47) and defense (No. 33) and will be the biggest test the Tigers have had all season.
Memphis is long overdue for an upset. Believe it or not, the last time the Tigers had a real upset victory was on Sept. 6, 2003, when they beat an Ole Miss team, 44-34, that finished the season 10-3 (7-1 SEC) and had a starting quarterback by the name of Eli Manning.
Ten years is a long time, but with a stout defense and evolving offense, the Tigers could grab a season-defining victory at home.
Yes, the Knights’ offense is dangerous. But, if we have learned anything about Memphis over its first three games, it’s that the defense is one of the best in the conference. It held an Arkansas State team that entered the game averaging 544.3 yards per game to 255 yards of total offense and just 74 yards on the ground.
The front seven, led by defensive end Martin Ifedi who is first in the country in sacks per game at 1.8, is allowing only 102.3 rushing ypg (18th in the FBS) and 2.9 yards per carry. Though UCF’s Johnson is a great back, the Knights have little depth behind him. The Tigers can turn a Knights team that ranks 80th in the country in rushing ypg into one-dimensional offense by shutting down Johnson.
It will be important for Memphis to get pressure on Bortles, something it’s more than capable of doing. Fuente’s squad is first in the country in team sacks per game, averaging 4.3. If the Tigers win the battle on the line of scrimmage the way they did against the Red Wolves, Bortles and the Knights’ offense could be in for a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Whether or not Memphis gets the upset could come down to the offense.
Redshirt-freshman starting quarterback Paxton Lynch is beginning to get the offense and timing with his receivers down. If the run game builds off its 329-yard performance against Arkansas State, not only will the Tigers be able to keep Bortles and the UCF offense off the field, but it would open up the passing game for Lynch.
Memphis is competing at a high level right now and making people take notice. One big win can do wonders for a program working to be a consistent winner. The Tigers have all the intangibles to stop the Knights and their eight-game winning streak in the series. If they can pull off the upset, the team has a great shot at returning to a bowl for the first time since 2008.